Picture this. You’re walking through an unfamiliar forest. It’s dark, your torch is flickering, and you aren’t really sure of how to get home again. What do you feel? A fluttering in your stomach? A tightening around your chest? A sweat on your brow? Your mind racing with all sorts of worst-case scenarios?
This is the feeling of fear and panic, and it’s our bodies natural response to a perceived threat, or intense concern. When something scary happens, the natural response is fear. Usually that fear doesn’t last long, and once the danger has passed we can return to feeling normal, and in some cases even laugh about what frightened us.
But sometimes, those feelings of fear, panic and anxiety can hang around for a lot longer, and for no real reason. When this happens, it can have a pretty significant impact on your mental health.
What is Fear & Panic?
Once again, the roots of fear and panic can be found in our early development as a species. Early humans needed the fast and powerful physiological responses that fear causes, because they were often in physical danger and needed that boost to help them escape and survive. However, we don’t face those same threats in modern-day living. But our bodies don’t know that, and so they function in the same way, but in response to things like bills, travel and social situations. None of which we can run away from or physically attack!
Those physical feelings can be scary in themselves, especially if you don’t know what they are or why you’re experiencing them. When you suffer with fear, panic & anxiety, those feelings can kick in for any perceived threat, imagined or minor, and give you that intense and frightening response. Short-term fear as a response to an event is a fairly normal thing, but prolonged feelings of fear when there is no threat can be problematic, and can cause disruptions to your daily life.
How Does it Feel?
When you’re feeling fear, panic or anxiety, there are a number of things happening in your body. It all starts in your brain, where the threat (whether real or perceived) is detected, and a hormonal response is triggered. This is initially a stress response, which we discuss in one of our previous issues. The brain releases waves of adrenaline and cortisol to give you the physical boost you need to escape from the situation causing the fear or panic. So you might notice:
- Your heart beating very fast
- You breathe very quickly
- Your muscles feel weak
- You’re sweating a lot
- Your stomach churns, or your bowels feel loose
- You find it hard to concentrate on anything else
- You feel dizzy
- You feel frozen to the spot
- You can’t eat
- You have hot and cold sweats
- You get a dry mouth
- Your muscles get tense and even start to shake
- You can’t enjoy your leisure time as much
- You struggle to look after yourself
- You have problems concentrating at work
- You worry about trying new things
All of these are physical, mental and behavioural symptoms of fear and panic.
Of course one of the things that goes hand in hand with panic is panic attacks. This is when you feel overwhelmed by the physical and mental feelings of fear. These feelings can be the result of a build-up, or they can come on quite suddenly, but they are usually triggered by an event or a fear. People who have panic attacks say that they find it hard to breathe, and they often worry that they’re having a heart attack or are going to lose control of their body. Panic attacks aren’t dangerous in themselves and they won’t cause you any harm, but they can be very frightening, and you may need help in order to stop the attack.
What Causes Fear & Panic?
Fear can be a one-off feeling when you’re faced with something new, or it can be a long-lasting, everyday problem, even if you can’t really put your finger on why. This has been particularly true over the course of 2020, with the pandemic causing a constant state of fear and panic in many people. But even without a pandemic, there are plenty of things in everyday life that can spark those feelings of fear and panic. A few common causes include:
- Unfamiliar situations
- Feeling pressure at work
- Struggling with unemployment, or adjusting to retirement
- Relationship difficulties
- Caring for an ill relative
- Fear of failure
- Illness or injury
- Significant life events – like getting married, buying a house or having a baby
- Past traumas – bullying, abuse or neglect
Of course, fear is very personal, so everyone experiences fear for different reasons. And sometimes you can’t always work out exactly why you feel frightened, why you’re panicking or if you are actually in any danger. And even if you can see how unlikely and out of proportion the reason for the fear is, your body will keep sending those danger signals to your body. If this sounds familiar, then you may need to try some methods for dealing with fear and panic. These can be self-help techniques like meditation, exercise and complementary therapies, or it could mean speaking to a professional, joining a support group or taking medication to manage the symptoms.
While fear and panic can be very helpful in certain situations, experiencing them every day in normal situations can be incredibly difficult. Feeling fearful, panicky or anxious on a daily basis can be exhausting, but it is something you can manage with the right tools. Try Melp to help you develop the right tools and techniques to build your own mental health toolkit, and prevent those feelings of fear, panic and anxiety from taking over your life.